A group of MPs investigating working conditions at Sports Direct are to discuss applying sanctions on Mike Ashley after the retailer’s billionaire founder said he would defy a parliamentary summons to appear before the select committee.
The move, which could include the tycoon being found in contempt of parliament or facing a Commons vote on whether he is a “fit and proper” person to be running a business, comes after Ashley wrote to MPs on the Business, Innovation and Skills committee on Thursday saying he would not be attending next week’s sessions. Having previously said he would be able to attend on the condition that the committee visited the group’s warehouse the day before, Ashley reversed his position when MPs declined the invitation, saying his lawyer, Richard Gordon QC, was unavailable.
In March, the tycoon was formally summonsed to appear before MPs to explain his company’s treatment of its workers, after refusing to agree to a number of dates suggested by MPs. The standoff followed a Guardian investigation into the treatment of workers at Sports Direct’s Derbyshire headquarters that found they were subject to surveillance and lengthy searches which meant effectively they earned less than the minimum wage.
Sports Direct responded to the reports by announcing a pay rise for its staff, as well as a review of all agency staff terms and conditions, which was to be overseen personally by Ashley.
Iain Wright, chairman of the BIS committee, said: “We are very disappointed by this 11th-hour notification, having given him a notice period of three months to make the necessary arrangements. As democratically elected MPs, we are responding to serious allegations of exploitative employment practices and mistreatment of workers at Sports Direct. Mr Ashley announced in December he would personally oversee a review of working practices at the Shirebrook warehouse. It is entirely reasonable for the select committee to ask Mr Ashley to respond to those allegations and comment on how his review – announced over six months ago – is progressing”.
Business leaders regularly give evidence to select committees, including former BHS owner Sir Philip Green who has agreed to attend later this month as part of an inquiry into the collapse of the department store chain. Wright said: “Does Mr Ashley, owning and operating a business in a parliamentary democracy, see himself as being beyond such public scrutiny?”
One source close to the parliamentary process said that the committee would now consider filing a special report to the Commons speaker John Bercow, who could advise on the options available. The source said the options might include: a summons for Ashley’s attendance to be issued from the whole of the house; the convening of a privileges committee that could find the billionaire in contempt of parliament; or the filing of a Commons motion where MPs could vote on whether Ashley is a “fit and proper” person to be running a business in a parliamentary democracy.
In his latest letter to MPs, Ashley questioned the independence of the committee, citing £7,219.98 of support given last year to Wright’s local constituency party by the union Unite, which has been leading a campaign highlighting the working conditions at Sports Direct.
Ashley said: “I note that you have declared that you have a link to Unite on the register of members’ financial interests. Surely it is inappropriate for committee members to have taken donations from a body that is then giving evidence before that same committee to further its own purposes?”
On Tuesday, the committee will question Unite’s assistant general secretary, Steve Turner, and its regional officer, Luke Primarolo. It will also hear evidence from the employment agencies that provide workers to Sports Direct’s Shirebrook warehouse: Andy Sweeney, chief executive of The Best Connection; Chris Birkby, managing director of Transline Group; and Jennifer Hardy, finance director of Transline Group.
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